A conversation with director Alex Gibney on Assange, Manning, and the legacy of WikiLeaks

We Steal Secrets isn't the first film on the WikiLeaks saga - among others, it covers some material already featured in the Swedish documentary WikiRebels and Frontline's reporting on Bradley Manning - and it certainly won't be the last: a dramatic recreation starring British actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange is currently in production. But with its grand scope, attention to detail, and stylish production - it includes probably the best use of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" you're likely to see in a tense political documentary - director Alex Gibney's film, which opens in the U.S. next week, is likely to be the most definitive.

We Steal Secrets follows the story from "Collateral Murder" through Cablegate to Assange's flight to the Ecuadorean embassy, with some intriguing detours into Assange's early days as a hacker and the personal turmoil of Manning. Nearly all the key players in the story make appearances, including Adrian Lamo, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Nick Davies, and Brigitta Jonsdottir, as well as some figures we don't hear form as often, such as one of the women accusing Assange of sexual assault and Manning's former commanding officer. 

But it's still striking that the two most important players in the saga -- Manning and Assange - are the ones who don't speak directly to the camera. Manning, currently being held in the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, speaks in the film through disembodied blue text projected on the screen - transcripts of the chat logs leaked by Lamo. According to Gibney's narration, the filmmakers attempted to interview Assange, but the WikiLeaks founder -- then holed at an English country estate waiting for a court to rule on his extradition to Sweden -- was reluctant, first demanding $1 million in exchange for an interview, then asking the director to report what other interviewees were saying about him. Gibney refused these conditions, so Assange speaks in the film only through archival footage. The absence of the two protagonist gives the move the feeling of a trial in absentia, one in which the hacker winds up being judged far more harshly than the soldier.

Gibney, an Academy Award-winning director who has previously turned his critical camera on the U.S. detention policy in Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron in The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the Catholic Church in Mea Maxima Culpa clearly has little sympathy for the institutions targeted by WikiLeaks or their claims for the right to confidentiality, but the film also makes a convincing case that the hubris and paranoia of Assange has done irreparable harm to the cause of transparency, echoing an argument made by many former WikiLeaks collaborators.

A few days ago, I had the chance to speak with Gibney by phone. An edited transcript of our conversation is below the jump:

How did your opinion about WikiLeaks change during the making of this film?

I certainly changed my opinion of Assange, and I just my thinking about what was important about this mechanism, this electronic dropbox, which I thought was so important. I now think the publishing mechanism of WikiLeaks is what's terribly important. My mind also changed about Bradley Manning.

But in terms of the larger issues about transparency and classification, not so much.

How did your views on Manning change?

I think he was caricatured by the military as someone who was going through a lot of personal problems and just dumped these documents in order to vent his rage over his own personal problems. The more digging we did, I found that to be a terribly unfair characterization. He certainly was going through a personal crisis. But I think he also had his own political consciousness and was disturbed by some of the things he was seeing. He may have been naïve about the ultimate use to which his leaks might be put, but I think a key part of his motivations were the motivations of a whistleblower even if he didn't behave like a traditional whistleblower.

The title of the film, We Steal Secrets, is a pretty accurate description of what WikiLeaks does, but it's actually a line spoken by [former CIA director] Michael Hayden to justify some of the activities of the U.S. diplomats in the cables. Is that mean to suggest that there are similarities between the ways that WikiLeaks and the U.S. government operate?

It was intended to put what WikiLeaks does in context. If the head of the CIA is looking you right in the eye and says "Let me be candid, we steal secrets. That's what we do," and he's saying we do that to protect our citizens, okay, we accept that. But then there are times when leaking secrets protects us all also. It was a way of, with a bit of irony, trying to put this whole idea of stealing and leaking secrets in a larger context. It's not so simple. Sometimes secrets are improperly kept and overclassified and leaking them can be a valuable thing, just as stealing secrets from foreign governments or terrorist organizations might be a way of protecting the public.

But there was also a suggestion made by several of Assange's former associates in the film that he has begun to act more like the very organizations he opposes. Do you agree with that?

I think that's true. I'm sorry to say he started to behave more like a CIA agent than he would like to admit.

How do you think the documentary might have turned out differently if he had agreed to participate?

It's impossible to know. But based on my rather extensive conversations with him, I did sense that he was no longer willing to be very open about either his own life or his own organization. Within that context, it's hard to know how an interview would have turned out. Sometimes a camera can reveal things that are the opposite of what the words themselves reveal. That might have been interesting. But I wasn't persuaded in my exchanges with Assange that he was willing to be ruthlessly honest.

What's the reaction to the film been from WikiLeaks and its supporters?

Assange has denounced the film as anti-Wikileaks, even though he hasn't seen it. Oliver Stone visited him recently and criticized it, even though he hasn't seen it. So I find that a double irony. The transparency organization won't see the film but feels free to denounce it. What does that tell you about evidence and truth?

The metaphor I think of is that if you look at the WikiLeaks Twitter feed, it has something like 1.5 million followers. But it only follows two people.

So Hayden in the film winds up serving as a kind of spokesman for the U.S. government. Did you consider also speaking with some of the diplomats whose words or activities were actually revealed by WikiLeaks?

We did talk to P.J. Crowley, who was the State Department spokesperson to get the official State Department point of view. But we didn't go around the world to talk to diplomats about the impact. In part, because I was trying to keep it more tightly focused on the mechanism of keeping and leaking secrets.

Did you consider spending more time on the content of the leaks rather than the story of the organization itself?

We did, and we did in fact do it in our initial 3 ½ hour cut. We spent more time on Tunisia. I was personally fascinated because of a prior film I had done on the leaks regarding the case of [wrongfully-imprisoned German former CIA detainee] Khalid el-Masri. We looked at Mexico and Yemen. There were a number of places we were going but at the end of the day the story was becoming too vast and we had to focus it.

I did think there were some broader things that came out. There were a lot of claims by the State Department and the military that these leaks had greviously damaged national security and the ability of diplomats to operate. But we put a press relase in the film from the State Department saying that the leaks had caused no lasting damage, just embarrassment. It think that's accurate.

Do you think WikiLeaks has made the world a better place?

I do, actually. I think of leaks as a kind of a pressure valve in democracy. And I think there necessary when governments overclassify and keep too many secrets. And I think the U.S. government had done that. So while it may have been difficult medicine for many people to swallow because the size of the leaks was so enormous, I think it had very positive effects. We learned a lot about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that a lot of us didn't know before. It did at least increase the momentum of the Arab Spring. It also showed us some positive things - the great analysis that our diplomats around the world were doing.

So all in all, while I'm not advocating that military personnel should be routinely leaking all the information that comes across their desk, I do think it had a positive effect.

But I think one of the benefits of looking at the story in detail is to see where WikiLeaks went wrong, to see where it made mistakes -- it certainly made its share. It would be a mistake to think it was perfect in any way shape or form. Some of these mistakes were understandable, but it's a shame for defenders of WikiLeaks to ignore those mistakes because then we can't learn from them the next time around.